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how to wash a sweater

Lucky you! You've got some really nice sweaters. And cashmere! By now, they've been worn a few times and need a date with the washing machine. But you hold back, not wanting to lose that new look and feel.

Believe it or not, sweaters can survive the laundering process - and even come out looking good. You just have to know to launder each type of fiber.

First of all - just because dry cleaning is expensive does not mean that it's the best way to care for all sweaters. The dry cleaning chemicals can build up in some fibers and leave them stiff. 

Your first act: Read the label. Then follow the instructions very carefully. If it says "Dry Clean Only", dry clean it.  However, if it says "Dry Clean" you may be able to wash it.

Sweaters are a little harder to care for than most garments. They can shrink; they can stretch; they can pill. And the softer the sweater, the more delicate. These laundry tips can help you wash a sweater safely.

sweater wash guidelines by fabric

  • Acrylic sweaters: Acrylics are manmade fibers that can stretch when subjected to heat. Wash an acrylic sweater as directed on the label (usually warm water). Then either lay the sweater flat to dry, or tumble dry on low if the label says that's OK. 
  • Angora sweaters: An angora sweater is a blend of rabbit hair and synthetic fibers - and it's very prone to shrinking. If the label says your angora sweater can be washed, skip the machine for safety's sake. Instead, hand wash in a gentle laundry detergent or baby shampoo in cool water, lay it flat to dry.
  • How to wash cashmere sweaters: Cashmere sweaters are usually made of goat hair blended with wool or synthetic fibers. Usually, you can wash cashmere sweaters on the delicate cycle in cold water. Roll in a towel to squeeze out excess water after washing. Then reshape and dry on a flat surface, away from sunlight or direct heat.
  • Chenille sweater: If you want chenille sweaters to stay soft, don't put them in the washing machine - even if the label says it's OK. The rubbing caused by the machine agitation can damage the fibers and make them snag or feel rough. Instead, wash a chenille sweater inside out by hand, and lay flat to dry.
  • Cotton sweaters: Usually, you can hand or machine wash cotton sweaters in cool water. Lay flat to dry. It may need ironing.
  • Silk sweaters: As long as it isn't beaded or have any other hand-stitched decor, most silk sweaters can be safely washed in the machine on a delicate cycle in cold water. Lay flat to dry. It may need ironing afterward.
  • Wool sweaters: Som wool sweaters can be washed; others cannot. Check the label. If you do put it in the washing machine, use the gentlest cycle and wash in cool water. Don't twist. Lay flat to dry. Also, not all wools are alike. Shetland and Merino wools often can be washed in cold water on the most delicate cycle. Agitation can cause them to shrink.

sweater wash and drying tips

Always turn sweaters inside out to reduce pilling. (Those little fuzzy balls or bits of fluff that show up on the surface are called "pills", and are the result of fiber agitation in the washing machine, which can cause them to break).

Wash sweaters in extra-large mesh bags. If handwashing, remove excess moisture by rolling the sweater in a towel.

  • Machine drying: If you do put your sweater in the dryer, dry on low heat and remove it when it's almost dry. Let it finish drying flat on a rack.
  • Flat drying: Place the sweater on a rack and reshape it as much as possible. Do not dry near heat or in direct sunlight. Check it occasionally to make sure it's not shrinking as it dries. If it does, pull it back out to its original size. (Mark the outline on your rack with tape.)
  • Pilling: You can buy one of those battery-powered pill removers but that's an exercise in frustration. The best way is to gently shave the sweater with a plastic safety razor. But very, very gently.
  • Storage: Don't put away a sweater dirty. This makes it more attractive to pests. Also, some stains may set. Once a sweater is clean, fold to store it - don't hang. Hanging causes most sweaters to stretch out of shape.
  • To make sweaters last longer, air them out at least 24 hours after wearing. Fold and store out of direct light.

For more information on clothing tags and care labels, read the Guide to Garment Care Symbols from the American Cleaning Institute.

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About the Author

Tara Aronson

Tara Aronson is a native Californian. Having grown up in San Diego, she studied journalism and Spanish to pursue a career in newspaper writing. Tara, whose three children - Chris, Lyndsay, and Payne - are the light of her life, now lives and writes in Los Angeles. She also regularly appears on television news programs throughout the U.S.